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An Interview with Johannes Girardoni

Jeff Simpson

View­ing the work of American-based sculp­tor and instal­la­tion artist Johannes Girar­doni feels like the moment when you real­ize, after study­ing semi­otics or send­ing what you thought was a clear e-mail, that all our intended mean­ings even­tu­ally desta­bi­lize into base mis­un­der­stand­ings. The idea that you can never say what you mean or con­trol how you’ll be heard makes it easy to give up on the idea of lan­guage or cre­at­ing art. That is, until you real­ize that the void itself is a source of cre­ative freedom.

Girar­doni is fas­ci­nat­ing for all the ways he tries to erase, reduce, and dis­till the world around him: blank bill­boards he fur­ther emp­ties with color over­lays, wood blocks cov­ered in pig­mented beeswax, “sign-less signs.” His work exists some­where between a pres­ence and an absence, some inter­sec­tion between mate­ri­al­ity and decon­struc­tion. And because he’s will­ing to cre­ate work that still elic­its emotion—not just brain work—he cap­tures some­thing of the real and tan­gi­ble voids we expe­ri­ence everyday.

Born in Aus­tria, Girar­doni grew up in Vienna and immi­grated to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1982. He stud­ied his­tory and art at Bow­doin Col­lege and earned a B.A. in both in 1989. Dur­ing this time, he also stud­ied at M.I.T. and accepted an invi­ta­tion as guest artist at M.I.T.ʼs Media Lab. His work has been shown at muse­ums and gal­leries in the US, Europe, and Asia. In 2008, Feicht­ner Edi­tions pub­lished his 116 page mono­graph on solo exhi­bi­tions in Aus­tria and New York, and in 2011 his light and sound instal­la­tion, The (Dis)appearance of Every­thing, was included in the 54th Venice Bien­nale, Italy. Girar­doni now lives and works in Los Angeles.

The Fid­dle­back: Tell me about your com­po­si­tional method. How do you find the right bal­ance between the pho­tographs, which often use dou­ble expo­sures, and the parts you reduce and/or sub­tract with paint?

Johannes Girar­doni: At first I was just shoot­ing images of blank bill­boards wher­ever I was trav­el­ing for projects. I wasn’t doing it with any inten­tion. It was more an act of image col­lect­ing, and it wasn’t even exclu­sive to bill­boards. About five years ago, I spent a year in Europe. Since much of my work is larger scale and I did not have my reg­u­lar stu­dio, I needed to con­tinue to make work in a dif­fer­ent way. I rented a tiny room and started going over the images I had accu­mu­lated over the past years. I was struck by how many bill­boards I had shot, but they were all empty, or shot from behind, reveal­ing their struc­ture. I’m less inter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy per se, so I started out by print­ing the pics on my inkjet printer and manip­u­lat­ing the image, over-painting cer­tain sec­tions. I quickly real­ized I liked the idea of stack­ing dou­bles: I used dou­ble expo­sures of the same image and started work­ing with a double-negation, that is, tak­ing an image of some­thing, in this case a blank bill­board and negat­ing that image by over-painting it: a sign-less sign, over­painted. So in answer to the ques­tion of the com­po­si­tion, many of the shots are done loosely, sim­ply as an act of visual record­ing from var­i­ous per­spec­tives. That sets the base image that is then manip­u­lated dig­i­tally, by lift­ing out lay­ers and phys­i­cally adding lay­ers of paint. A third pho­to­graph of the same bill­board that is not actu­ally in the pho­to­graph usu­ally deter­mines the painted shape. I use that third image and project it onto the prints to cre­ate a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive shape to block out and reveal ele­ments of the under­ly­ing images. My deci­sions there depend on the rest of the imagery and how I can best de-compose it, so that the viewer can still put it back together in their brain. It’s sur­pris­ing how quickly an image dis-integrates when you take things out, cover things up, or remove sec­tions of lay­ers. I like to set them up in a way that the pho­to­graph (the archived light) and the paint (the phys­i­cal mate­r­ial) come into a rela­tion­ship in which the viewer has to deci­pher what’s dig­i­tal and what’s mate­r­ial, but can still rebuild what he or she is see­ing. The viewer com­pletes the piece. This way of image mak­ing is entirely oppo­site of how adver­tis­ing works. In adver­tis­ing, the image is metic­u­lously designed for instant, easy uptake. I do the opposite.

The Fid­dle­back: What inspired you to use adver­tis­ing bill­boards for this series?

JG: It’s exactly what I just started talk­ing about in the other ques­tion. Adver­tis­ing is our culture’s con­tem­po­rary iconog­ra­phy. Hence the title, Exposed Icons. Every­thing we feel, do, or want, can be traced to adver­tis­ing. It’s ubiq­ui­tous, and while the big bill­boards I shoot are rem­nants of advertising’s prior iter­a­tion, we can’t ignore the fact that adver­tis­ing has infil­trated vir­tual space, where it’s a lot less obvi­ous, and it knows much more about our inter­ests. But let me get back to the sign-less sign. For some­one as myself, who isn’t inter­ested in mak­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tional art, I felt the bill­board is an appro­pri­ate image to acqui­esce and explore ideas about the lan­guage of signs. I came back from an expe­di­tion deep into West Africa a few years back. On my return, I was really cued into our culture’s highly devel­oped visual sys­tems and the per­va­sive­ness of adver­tis­ing. So I reacted by mak­ing this work.

I think that as an artist, it is my respon­si­bil­ity to dis­sect and con­front those things that go on in our cul­ture that are unre­solved and changing….

The Fid­dle­back: The era­sure you apply to bill­boards by mask­ing their util­ity for com­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pletely shifts their con­text and forces us, I’d argue, to focus our atten­tion on the lone­li­ness and beauty of their phys­i­cal struc­ture. Would you say that reduc­tion­ism dri­ves your work?

JG: I think that as an artist, it is my respon­si­bil­ity to dis­sect and con­front those things that go on in our cul­ture that are unre­solved and chang­ing. Every artist goes about that in their own way, and I find it most effec­tive to keep strip­ping away at a thing or an idea to expose a sim­ple con­nec­tion, a basic premise. If it holds up at that level, then I know I am on to some­thing that’s worth pur­su­ing. What really struck me about the bill­boards is that they are ubiq­ui­tous. Whether I am in East­ern Europe out­side a des­o­late coun­try vil­lage, in New York City, 500 miles south of Tim­buktu in Africa, or dri­ving through the deserts of the Amer­i­can South­west … these places all have one thing in com­mon: Bill­boards. They artic­u­late dif­fer­ently in every loca­tion, some are elab­o­rately built, gigan­tic struc­tures; oth­ers scant­ily held together signs made of found wood. By focus­ing on the side that is unseen, I reveal their struc­ture, which is the part that we never look at. These struc­tures are always beau­ti­ful, because they are built with such effi­ciency. Adver­tis­ing is a dri­ver of com­merce and at the core of the cul­ture we are today. The only way I can strip away at that is through my work. And how­ever trou­bling the under­ly­ing ideas of the work, my seduc­tion comes in the form of some­thing beau­ti­ful. I think the signs are beau­ti­ful. The attrac­tor in my work is always some­thing that I feel is well made, exe­cuted as close to per­fec­tion as possible—but what those things say about where we are on the cul­tural spec­trum, some­times con­veys a much darker reality.

The Fid­dle­back: You’ve also worked with light instal­la­tions and “organic sculp­tures” com­posed of wood and paint. Does the medium you use dic­tate form and con­tent, or do you start with an idea and then try to find the right medium to rep­re­sent it? Do pre­fer work­ing in one medium over another?

JG: Right now I find it most effec­tive to work with light and sound. I have a few core ideas that I explore in all of my work. At it’s most basic level, my work is about the rela­tion­ship of light and mate­r­ial. His­tor­i­cally, that’s what artists have always done. Go back to the Renais­sance and we fig­ured out how to rep­re­sent space and light in the form of a pic­ture as a “win­dow.” Paint was turned into an image of a per­son, or an image of build­ing; that all changes as art moves into the mod­ern age. The pic­ture plane flat­tens and we wind up with abstract art, where the paint­ing itself becomes the object and stops rep­re­sent­ing things out­side itself. Move along, and we arrive at an art that was pre­dom­i­nantly devel­oped here out west—the Light and Space movement—where per­cep­tion itself becomes the art­work. In a Tur­rell for exam­ple, you sense your­self see­ing. But things don’t end here. I con­cern myself with where we are right now. And right now, we are at a point in our cul­ture where tech­nol­ogy and human per­cep­tion are about to merge. Dig­i­tal and vir­tual sys­tems are col­lid­ing with our nat­ural selves. This is the new real­ity. In answer to your ques­tion about the rela­tion­ship between the idea and the medium, I have always explored that same idea—of light and material—but my new series directly address these cur­rent con­cerns in my choices of mate­r­ial. The pho­tos go into these very ques­tions. The pho­tos are dig­i­tal, which means that they are no longer even real pho­tographs. They are archives of light, but are vir­tual in that the infor­ma­tion is reartic­u­lated through algo­rithms. It’s no longer sim­ply cap­tured light. But to come to the point, I decon­struct these by dig­i­tal means and then I over-paint them with phys­i­cal paint, which I think of as flat sculp­ture. So here is the con­ver­gence of dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion and mate­r­ial paint. For me the digital/analog archi­tec­ture of the over-painted pho­to­graph cre­ates a new real­ity that is at the core of what we are faced with. We have to fig­ure out where dig­i­tal ends and mate­r­ial begins. That’s one of the main points of these works.

The Fid­dle­back: What are you work­ing on now?

JG: All of these ques­tions of light and mate­r­ial take on deeper and more rel­e­vant posi­tions when one starts to think about our con­ver­gence of our nat­ural selves and tech­nol­ogy. Think about the iPhone, and how our social behav­ior has changed since its incep­tion, or how we read a land­scape dif­fer­ently as a result of the nav­i­ga­tion we now use. This is just the begin­ning of the human—technology inter­face. The new real­ity is that we are no longer the only ones sens­ing. Our per­cep­tion, which has reigned supreme as long as human his­tory, is now being chal­lenged by tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems of our own mak­ing. There is an infra­struc­ture in place that senses us and our behav­ior. No mat­ter where you stand on that devel­op­ment, it is the new real­ity. My lat­est projects deal with those questions—again in the con­text of light and mate­r­ial. Only in these new works, light remains light, but the mate­r­ial is sound. I have been work­ing on map­ping the vis­i­ble spec­trum and trans­pos­ing it on the audi­ble spec­trum, con­vert­ing light waves to sound wavers. Through a process of Spectro-sonic Refre­quenc­ing I have come up with a way to make light audi­ble with the use of sen­sors. My two newest works are based on those ideas. Meta­space V2 is a con­tained immer­sive light and sound sculp­ture, which you can enter. The sculp­ture gen­er­ates light and con­verts it to sound with the use of sen­sors cre­at­ing a vir­tual feed­back loop between art­work and viewer. Chro­ma­Sonic Field—Blue Green, the other sculp­ture, is a resin and light instal­la­tion, which also con­verts light to sound. In this work, view­ers walk through the instal­la­tion and the sound that is gen­er­ated by the light is mod­u­lated by the pres­ence of the viewer. The light sit­u­a­tion in that instal­la­tion, how­ever, appears to change, but it does not. It’s just the result of your per­cep­tion mak­ing you think it is chang­ing. The exhi­bi­tion just opened last week at Nye+Brown in Los Ange­les. Both projects are ambi­tious in scale and idea. I have been work­ing on them for the bet­ter part of a year, and it’s been a push to the edge of the enve­lope of get­ting them real­ized. Phys­i­cally and conceptually.